In Jesus’ time, communities were deeply divided by bitter differences in religious beliefs, political positions, income inequality, legal status, and ethnic differences. Sound familiar?
Jesus lived in the middle of a culture war, too. And though the political systems were different (not exactly a representative democracy), the greed, hypocrisy, and oppression different groups used to get their way were very similar.
Let’s set the scene.
Jesus was born at the height of the Roman Empire’s power. They’d conquered most of the known world, and Israel was no exception. Unlike previous empires that would try to destroy cultures by displacing conquered peoples’ leaders, the Romans didn’t force people to change their religion or customs as long as they kept their obligations to the empire. Rome would install a client king (a puppet government) and exact tribute (cash) in lots of different ways. Families were charged taxes per person—farmers on crops, fishermen on catches, and travelers were charged fees to use the roads. This was in addition to local business and religious taxes charged by priests.
In Israel, political and religious factions were one and the same. Back then, it was Pharisees and Sadducees. Today, we have conservatives and liberals.
The Pharisees were the most religiously conservative leaders. They had the most influence among the common working poor, who were the majority. They believed that a king would come one day to conquer Rome with violence and free their nation. Some preyed upon a mostly illiterate population by adding extra rules and requirements that were designed to force the working poor into a posture of subjugation.
The Sadducees were wealthy aristocrats who had a vested financial interest in Roman rule. They were in charge of the temple, and they didn’t believe any savior king was coming. They made themselves wealthy by exacting unfair taxes and fees from the labor of their own people and by contriving money-making schemes that forced the poor to pay exorbitant prices to participate in temple sacrifice—a critical part of their religion.
There were Zealot groups who hid in the hills and violently resisted Roman occupation, and then there were the Samaritans, often oppressed and marginalized because of their racial and ethnic identities.
And so, the common farmer, fisherman, or craftsman’s family lived through a highly volatile political period. Overbearing religious leaders who despised and oppressed them, wealthy elites who ripped them off, racial and ethnic tension with neighbors, and sporadic violent outbreaks between an oppressive occupying army.
So where was Jesus in all of this? Did he align with the religious elites? With the wealthy and powerful? Or did he start an uprising to overthrow them?
None of the above.
He went from town to town, offering hope, new life, and modeling a different way to live and to change the world. Instead of pursuing power, money, or religious authority, he shared a loving and sacrificially generous way of living. He chose not to go along with the schemes others used to impact the world. Instead, he championed a better way.
And so, each of these political groups saw him as a threat. The Pharisees recognized his movement as an affront to their authority—exposing the hypocrisy of their practices. The Sadducees saw Jesus as a threat to their power and wealth because he exposed their money-making schemes. The Zealots violently rejected one of the essential themes of Jesus’ movement: love your enemy.
In the end, it took all three of these groups to have him killed. A Zealot (Judas) betrayed his location to those seeking to arrest him, the Sadducees brought him before the Romans to be executed, and when the Romans couldn’t find a crime committed, the Pharisees rallied the people to force Rome’s hand.
Isn’t it funny how political foes can come together to destroy a common enemy that threatens their designs? But in spite of their best efforts, his execution was only the beginning of a movement that continues to impact the world thousands of years later. Jesus’ movement was so impactful because he actively resisted and rejected participating in culture-war politics.